The Lotus Sûtra is commonly divided into three chronologically successive sections, – chapters 2-9 and 18 (ch. 1 was later added to endorse the bodhisattva way); chapters 10-11, 13-17, 19-21 (ch. 12 ‘Devadatta’ is a later addition); and chapters 22-28. Chapter 2, on skillful means, is the basic section of the oldest part. It is undoubtedly the most important authority for an understanding of the notion. Perhaps it can be seen as opening a perspective that commands the entire sûtra, so that the entire work is composed in the key of skillful means, and the sublime revelations of the middle chapters and the practical injunctions of the final ones are to be interpreted as various enactments of skillful means. If so, the early chapters are not just a methodological lead-in but already proclaim the revelational breakthrough that is the basic theme of this scripture.
What is the content of the Buddhas’ teaching? What does the revelation reveal? Somewhat as in the case of St. John’s Gospel or the Bhagavad-gîtâ these questions come to seem quite inapposite as one becomes more familiar with the texture of the scripture. It is the revelation itself, a process of total illumination, and not any content that it bears, that is the central focus in these three texts. The skill in means of the Buddhas is not then a step to some ulterior content the means serve to convey, any more than the word that the Johannine Christ speaks is a step toward grasping the truths it conveys; it is in itself truth, life, a way that is one with the goal. ‘The words I have spoken to you are spirit and life’ (Jn 6:63). Along with this non-duality between revelation and revealed there is a non-duality of revelation and revealer. Christ, the Buddhas, Krishna are revealers who are themselves the revelation, or whose very being is that of a revelation-event. The mode of the revelation, skillful means in the Buddhist case, is thus the mode of being of the revealer, his very identity.
One may detect different meanings and functions of skillful means even in the Lotus Sûtra, and a great variety of further meanings will accrue to the term over time. This need not be a situation of chaotic ambiguity; each meaning of the term may be worked out consistently, in critical dialogue with previous understandings. In current usage, especially in interreligious thinking, there is a danger of exploiting the term in a cavalier way, so that all religious beliefs are reduced to ‘merely’ skillful means, and anything at all can be a skillful means, so that ‘anything goes.’ The Japanese saying, ‘a lie too is a skillful means,’ uso mo hôben, perhaps reflects such a banalization of the idea. Religionists are likely to use the notion of skillful means to suggest that religions are just a collection of useful lies. Lost from view here is the positive thrust of the term upâya-kausalya, which has few if any limitative connotations but rather stresses the efficacy and success of the devices, and their wholesome (kusala), or salvific, character.
Interreligious reflection is tempted to correlate or conflate skillful means with the Madhyamaka notion of conventional truth (samvrti-satya), again interpreted in a manner that voids it of positive significance. In a postmodern, relativizing mood, it is blessedly convenient to be able to say of all religious myths and doctrines that they are ‘merely’ skillful means, conventional truth, and therefore not to be taken too seriously. Though the Lotus Sûtra was almost the Rosetta Stone of the belated Western discovery of Buddhism, thanks to its first translator Eugène Burnouf, the Western student today is likely to think that the Emptiness tradition of the Perfection of Wisdom Sûtras and Nâgârjuna represents a more genuine Buddhism, because of its radically deconstructive cast, its fearless trust in the power of the negative. The unbroken sunniness of the Lotus, its sustained enthusiastic tone, might seem a relapse into uncritical devotionalism.
Nearer acquaintance with the text, however, brings a deeper appreciation not only of the efficacity of its affirmative rhetoric, which has an uplifting and galvanizing impact on its hearers, but also of the depth of seasoned wisdom underlying this rhetoric. The sûtra remains a work of Buddhist thought. The way it pitches its message, lightly and deftly, reflects a schooling in emptiness, as if this lotus were blossoming in the clear sky. The very fact that the highest illumination or Buddha-wisdom to which it invites us is not given the detailed profile of a set of dogmas, or even of the lists of hierarchically arranged stages of progress that still weigh down other Mahâyâna sûtras such as the Vimalakîrti, indicates a riper grasp of empty wisdom, a more secure abiding in it. From thence the passage to compassion and good deeds is smoother and stronger than in the other sûtras. The hearers or meditators devote less energy to conundrums of emptiness, to the methodology of the way to buddhahood, for the text establishes them in the realm of enlightenment from the start, assuring them that they are offspring of Buddhas and future Buddhas, and encourages them to embrace their blessed condition joyfully. Enthusiastic practice of the bodhisattva path follows naturally on this.
Rather than deal with Kumarajîva’s Chinese version, which has often been translated into European languages because it is a living Scripture of East Asian Buddhism, especially in Tendai and the schools coming from Nichiren, I prefer to go back to the Sanskrit, using the version edited by Wogihara and Tsuchida along with the H. Kern translation, in the expectation that this makes it easier to grasp the original bearing of such concepts as skillful means. (There is now a Spanish translation by Carmen Dragonetti and Fernando Tola, second edition forthcoming.)
THE PLURALITY OF PATHS AS A SKILLFUL MEANS
The primary locus for the notion of skillful means in the Lotus Sûtra is the topic of the three vehicles, seen as provisional expressions of the one vehicle. Chapter 2, verse 21: ‘It is by my superior skillfulness that I explain the law at great length to the world at large. I deliver whosoever are attached to one point or another, and show the three vehicles’ (Kern, p. 34);
upâya-kausalya man’etad agram
bhâsâmi dharmam baju yena loke
tahim-tahim lagna pramocayâmi
trînî ca yâmâny upadarsayâmi. (Wogihara and Tsuchida, p. 32)
Denominational identity is one way of remaining ‘attached to one point or another’ and the awareness of religious pluralism can bring release from this, especially when one posits that the plurality of religions testifies to a universal revelatory activity at work in all of them. For the Lotus, this is the Buddhas preaching the Dharma; for Christianity, it is the enlightening operation of the eternal divine Logos.
The srâvaka, pratyekabuddha and bodhisattva vehicles are skillful means, but the one vehicle is the basic truth these three convey. Does this mean that the one vehicle has no historical linguistic embodiment but is reflected in the pluralism of Buddhist schools and lifestyles? Sâriputra rejoices that ‘the many future Buddhas and those who are now existing, as knowers of the real truth, shall expound or are expounding this law by hundreds of able devices’ (ch. 3, v. 18, Kern, p. 64);
anâgatâs co bahu-buddha loke
tisthanti te co paramârtha-darsinah
upâya-kausalya-satasi ca dharmam
nidarsayisyanty atha desayanti ca (pp. 62-3)
The Buddhas know the real (paramârtha) truth but perhaps preach it only by skillful means, which are always dependent on the context and capacities of the hearers. Or is the Lotus Sûtra itself the full and final revelation of the one vehicle, putting the three vehicles in their place as provisional pedagogies now surpassed? If the Lotus Sûtra is itself a skillful means, is it one that is consubstantial with the truth it conveys, in a way that gives it a definitive status transcending the three vehicles?
Theravâda Buddhists such as David Kalupahana resent the imperialism of Mahâyâna, which they see as putting earlier Buddhism in its place much as Origen, with his Christological exegesis of the Hebrew Scriptures, put Judaism in its place (or as, before that, the Gospel of John sublates the witness of the Old Testament into the supreme revelation in Christ). But does the sûtra claim that the bodhisattva-yâna is the supreme vehicle, invisibly at work in the lower two, as Christ is mystically present in Judaism according to Origen? Does it claim that the other two vehicles are only for the ignorant or the spiritually undeveloped?
Other Mahâyâna sources, such as the Vimalakîrti nirdesa sûtra, indeed look down on the two lower vehicles. But the Lotus seems to distinguish the teaching of these sûtras as bodhisattva-yâna from its own Buddha-yâna, which is above and beyond all three vehicles, yet present and operative in each of them, so that all three are elevated to equal dignity as paths to future buddhahood. This does not necessarily imply imperialism but could be a live-and-let-live formula, as if Christians were to recognize Judaism, Islam and Christianity as valid vehicles of a truth surpassing them all and active in them all. (Indeed, such a possibility might be profitably explored by the Abrahamic religions today.) ekam hi karyam dvitiyam na vidyate (ch. 2, v. 54, p. 43), ‘he has but one aim, indeed, no second’ (Kern, p. 46). When the text adds na hîna-yânena nayanti buddhâh (v. 55),‘the Buddhas do not bring over (creatures) by an inferior vehicle,’ this is not declaring the ‘inferior’ vehicles to be false, but means perhaps that the one vehicle is at work in the allegedly inferior vehicles as much as in the bodhisattva vehicle. The chapter begins by stating that srâvakas and pratyekabuddhas cannot grasp the depth of the Buddha’s teaching, but this does not imply that bodhisattvas can – rather, bodhisattvas are conscious that they cannot grasp it either, but must have recourse to skillful means –that skillful means is the very element of Buddhist comprehension and communication.
However, it is not clear that this is the unambiguous teaching of the sûtra. Sometimes it does seem to imply that the bodhisattva surpasses the two lower ones, clearly marked as inferior: ch. 5, v. 52 says that srâvakas ‘lack the insight of voidness’ (Kern, p. 137); sûnya-jnâna-vihînatvâ (p. 128). They think they have reached nirvâna, but in fact they have not received the supreme teaching: ‘As an able teacher he shows the true law; he reveals supreme Buddha-enlightenment to him who is most advanced. To those of middling wisdom the Leader preaches a middling enlightenment; again another enlightenment he recommends to him who is afraid of the mundane whirl. The disciple who by his discrimination has escaped from the triple worlds thinks he has reached pure, blest Nirvâna, but is only by knowing all laws (and the universal laws) that the immortal Nirvâna is reached’ (ch. 5, vv. 61-3; 64b; Kern, pp. 138-9);
upâya-kusalah sâstâ saddharmam desayaty asau
anuttarâm buddha-bodhim desayaty agra-yânike
prakâsayati madhyâm tu madhya-prajnâya nâyakah
samsâra-bhîrave bodhim anyâm samvarnayaty api
traidhâtukân nihsrtasya srâvakasya vijânatah
bhavaty evam mayâ prâptam nirvânam amalam sîvam…
sarva-dharmâvabodhât tu nirvânam prâpyate ’mrtam (p. 129)
The Buddhas have compassion for the deluded srâvakas, who are compared to fools locked inside their rooms, ignorant of what is going on outside; they take a baseless pride in their awareness and pretend to be all-knowing when in fact they know nothing (vv. 65-71). Here we have perhaps a different textual layer which falls short of the vision expressed elsewhere.
Another ambiguity discussed from of old is the question as to whether the bodhisattva vehicle and the Buddha vehicle are one and the same. Sometimes it sounds as if the bodhisattva-yâna is the highest teaching: ‘All his preachings of the law have no other end but supreme and perfect enlightenment, for which he is rousing beings to the Bodhisattva-course’ (ch. 3; Kern, p. 72); imam evânuttarâm samyak-sambodhim ârabhya sarva-dharma-desanâbhir bodhisattva-yânam eva samâdâpayati (p. 69, ll. 8-10). Are there three or four vehicles in the burning house parable of Chapter 3? The father, to lure his children to escape, promises them bullock-carts, goat-carts, and deer-carts, but when they escape they are all given bullock-carts – symbolizing the bodhisattva-vehicle, not a new, superior Buddha-vehicle. In the explanation of the parable the Tathâgata ‘shows, by his knowledge of able devices, three vehicles, viz. the vehicle of the disciples, the vehicle of the Pratyekabuddhas, and the vehicle of the Bodhisattvas’ (Kern, p. 78). But then there is a slippage: the Tathâgata ‘leads them by no other vehicle but the Buddha-vehicle to full development’ (p. 81); this ‘one vehicle, the great vehicle’ (p. 82) seems to transcend the bodhisattva vehicle.
Again Origen offers a suggestive parallel. Sometimes he speaks as if the invisible coming of the divine Logos into the minds of saints and prophets in the Old Testament make them equal to the Apostles who witnessed the incarnate coming of the Logos. This equality could be paralleled with the equality of the three vehicles in the Lotus. Moreover, Origen speaks of an Eternal Gospel that lies beyond the present dispensation; this might be paralleled with the Buddha vehicle as transcending the three vehicles. The bodhisattva vehicle becomes almost indiscernible from the Buddha vehicle, and even the lower vehicles are seen as one with it. There is a non-duality between Old and New Testaments, and between both and the Eternal Gospel, when all are seen, in a spiritual reading, as the one revelation of the Logos. Likewise, the precise distinction of vehicles becomes a matter of no great moment when we see the one Buddha-dharma being revealed in all of them.
A striking instance of non-duality between the ultimate Dharma and its vehicle is found in the Pure Land notion of hôshin hôben (方身方便) or ‘dharmakâya as skillful means.’ On the basis of the old Buddhist distinction of the form-body (rūpa-kāya) and the dharma-body (dharma-kāya), Tanluan introduced a variant of the two-body theory: dharma-body as suchness and dharma-body as compassionate means. Amida is a skillful means yet he is the very embodiment of the dharmakâya; Amida emerges from tathatâ, the ultimate suchness of the real; thus he surpasses lower forms of Buddha-body (nirmânakâya or sambhogakâya). According to Shinran, ‘there are two kinds of dharma-body in regard to the Buddha. The first is called dharma-body as suchness and the second, dharma-body as compassionate means…’ (quoted, Tanaka, forthcoming). ‘Shinran knew conceptually of the provisional nature of Dharmākara and Amida… This form or dharma-body as compassionate means was provisional in relation to the formless oneness or dharma-body as suchness, but not provisional in relation to Shinran himself on the human side’ (ib.). ‘Shinran saw no other way but to humbly accept the teachings. This, I argue, led him not to be so presumptuous as to regard Amida or Pure Land only figuratively. He does not claim to comprehend “oneness” or the “mechanism” by which oneness manifested as form provisionally.’ (ib.). Later, demythologizing, Pure Land thinkers go beyond Shinran to treat Amida as an imaginative personification of the impersonal dharmakâya.
Ultimately all Buddhas are expressions of the universal dharmakâya, an idea developed in the hon-jaku theory, so influential in Japan. Can one say that Christ, too, is a skillful means of divine revelation? The eternal Logos is universally manifest. The specific mode of its advent in the life, death and ongoing life of Jesus Christ need not mean that the universal process of revelation is entirely confiscated by this event, as the Vatican’s document Dominus Iesus (2000) tends to claim. Rather the Logos communicating itself skillfully in the singular revelation in Israel and Christ is skillfully operative elsewhere in other forms, not necessarily to be judged lower or baser, and it is in the dialogal interaction between the biblical events and this wider revelation that the meaning of the former is best elucidated today.
THE PEDAGOGIC NATURE OF RELIGIOUS TRUTHS
Skillful means can refer more widely to the entire panoply of Buddhist teaching. Here again we see the tendency to understand revelation and its vehicle as non-dual. The means becomes the very embodiment and presence of the end at least at privileged moments or in a deep perspective. The deep mystery of the Buddha is coordinated with the multiplicity of his skillful means: ‘It is difficult to understand the exposition of the mystery of the Tathâgata, Sâriputra; for in elucidating the law, Sâriputra, I use hundred thousands of various skilful means, such as different interpretations, indications, explanations, illustrations. It is not by reasoning, Sâriputra, that the law is to be found: it is beyond the pale of reasoning and must be learnt from the Tathâgata’ (Kern, pp. 39-40); durbodhyam Sâriputra tathâgatasya samdhâbhâsyam. tat kasya hetoh. nânâ-nirukti-nirdesâbhilâpa-nirdesanair mayâ Sâriputra vividhair upâya-kausalya-sata-sahasrair dharmah samprakasitah. atarko ’’tarkâvacaras tathâgata-vijneyah Sâriputra saddharmah (pp. 36-7). The Dharma is too vast to be embraced and seized by human reasoning; instead one opens to is by accepting the testimony of the numerous skillful means that speak of it. The abundance of the means is as a flood making the Dharma richly present, and overriding the abstractions of reasoning. Thus, far from being a set of images or metaphors inferior to the deliveries of pure reason, skillful means represent the highest and richest form of communication of Buddhist truth.
Religious teachings, it is implied, are never cut and dried propositions handed to one on a plate with a ‘take-it-or-leave-it.’ Rather they acquire their function and validity within a communicative and pedagogic relationship. The entire corpus of a religious tradition can be interpreted in this contextual way: ‘The Mahayanists saw the whole Buddhist religion as a vehicle for “crossing over” and for “bringing over”, which are inseparable. In short, Buddhism is a skilful means’ (Pye, p. 159).
The Buddha is compared to rain nourishing plants of all kinds, in chapter 5:
‘Whether walking, standing, or sitting, I am exclusively occupied with this task of proclaiming the law… I recreate the whole world like a cloud shedding its water without distinction; I have the same feeling for respectable people as for the low; for moral persons as for the immoral’ (vv. 23-4);
ananya-karmâ pravadâmi dharmam
gacchanti tisthantu nisîdamânah…
samtarpayâmi imu sarva-lokam
megho va vârim sana muncamânah
âryesu nîcesu ca tulya-buddhir
duhsîla-bhûtesc athat sîla-vatsu (p. 119)
Is there a non-duality between upâya and truth, between conventional and ultimate? Does trust in the upâya bring one into conjunction with the unfathomable dharma? Pye says that the ‘initial ambiguity’ of the means is ‘resolved into the original or final Buddhist meaning, leaving the empty shell of the device, whatever it was, behind’ (Pye, p. 160). Let us see how this might apply to the remarkable upâya whereby the Buddha shows nirvâna, whereas in reality nirvâna always is: ‘To these son of Sâri, I show a device and say: Put an end to your trouble. When I perceive creatures vexed with mishap I make them see Nirvâna. And so do I reveal all those laws that are holy and correct from the first’ (ch. 2, vv. 67-8; Kern, p. 48; Kern’s numbering of the verses is 66-7);
nesâm aham Sârisutâ upâyam
vadâmi duhkhasya karotha antam
duhkhena sampîdita drstva sattvân
nirvâna tatrâpy upadarsayâmi
evam ca bhâsâmy ahu nitya-nirvrtâ
âdi-prasântâ imi sarva-dharmâh (p. 45)
Chapter 15 will spell out this endless (ananta) existence of the Buddha, which entails that his attainment of enlightenment at Bodhigâya was also an upâya, revealing what always already was. In this case, is ‘the empty shell of the device’ left behind? It is true that the parinirvâna of the Buddha is unmasked as a fiction; but on the other hand the truth of nirvâna is now manifested in a fuller, more universal way. So the skillful means is not so much discarded as revealed more fully. The ‘initial ambiguity’ consists only in a limitation.
The connotation of ‘skillful means’ also takes on a reflexive aspect, since the Sûtra itself is a collection of such skillful means. We should not say, I think, that all previous teachings were upâya and that the Lotus now announces the truth, beyond upâya. The chapter on skillful means is the key teaching of the sûtra and it is a teaching about teaching, giving a ‘meta’- character to the entire sûtra. If the sûtra itself is a mass of skillful means, the practices of composing it, reciting it and copying it can be seen as enacting the bodhisattva virtue of mastery of skillful means. Perhaps what most distinguishes a bodhisattva from a srâvaka or pratyekabuddha is the ability to course freely in the use of skillful means both for learning and for teaching, an ability that corresponds to a grasp of how deep the Buddha dharma is, how far beyond one’s grasp.
When a teacher says, ‘I am now using a skillful means,’ he brings out the pragmatic, relational nature of his pedagogic performance. Jesus’s use of parables to elicit awareness suggests that religious truth can be conveyed in no other way. The nature of religious communication is such that the unformulable ultimate truth is never put forward plainly; a creative play of metaphorical indications is what sustains the inspiriting awareness of the gracious ultimate reality.
The upshot would be that all religious messages should be listened to as deliveries of ultimate truth, as it seeks to make itself known within the limitations of a given historical culture. The straining of language and imagination, often suggesting extravagant fantasy, testifies to the supreme quality of what is being manifested, even though to the unsympathetic analyst it may seem tawdry. The truth and seriousness of the religious words, gestures and imaginings comes into focus when we see them as teaching devices, as intended to communicate with us, just as squiggly lines on a radar screen suddenly become highly significant when we realize they are signals from extra-terrestrials. Naturally, discernment and judgment are required in handling the mass of religious messages, but the initial hermeneutic act of recognizing them as inspired pedagogy gives the proper basis for this discernment. Instead of asking, ‘are these messages true, well-grounded, meaningful’ the question becomes: ‘What are these messages trying to say? What kind of communication is going on here?’ Skill in responding to skillful means, like appreciation of literature or music, is not in the first place a matter of judgment – that comes second – but of sympathetic interpretation, and for that one must place oneself in the posture of openness that the sûtra calls adhimukti.
Skillful means are a teaching device of higher beings. But they need a correlative on the part of the beings who are being taught. This cannot be cleverness in interpreting the ultimate sense of the conventional devices, for such cleverness would tend to make the devices unnecessary and inoperative. Rather what is required is trust in the guidance the devices offer, in view of the surpassing profundity of the unfathomable Buddha teaching. Perhaps every religion is a construction of this kind, to which one trustingly subscribes. The means in which one trusts are not fragile tokens, but present themselves with a full presence that requisitions the entire life of the believer, somewhat as the Christian sacraments do.
The second chapter of the Sûtra urges trust in the Buddha’s use of skillful means. This trust is correlated with the claim that the Buddha’s teaching is deep and hard to grasp, so that one must consent to be led by the upâya he offers, in each case suited to one’s spiritual capacities. But the text does not spell out a contrast between deep teaching and shallow means, or stress that the means are a mere prop since the teaching is so elusive. On the contrary, the deep teaching and the means are spoken of as intimately conjoined; faith in the means is already an attunement to the deep teaching that they convey or even embody; the deep teaching connaturally expresses itself in the infinite variety of means the Buddha uses in communicating it.
The Buddhas’ mastery of skillful means is rooted in their attainments: mahôpaya-kausalya-jnâna-darsana-parama-pâramitâ-prâptâh Sâriputra tathâgatâ arhanthah samyak-sambuddhâh. asangâpratihata-jnâna-darsana-bala-vaisârady’âvenikêndriya-bala-bodhyanga-dhyâna-vimoksa-samâdhi-samâpatty (p. 28, ll. 14-17); ‘The Tathâgatas, &c., Sâriputra, have acquired the highest perfection in skilfulness and the display of knowledge; they are endowed with wonderful properties, such as the display of free and unchecked knowledge; the powers; the absence of hesitation; the independent conditions; the strength of the organs; the constituents of Bodhi; the contemplations; emancipations; meditations; the degrees of concentration of mind’ (Kern, p. 31). Skillful means are not so much a flimsy set of mediations for those who cannot bear the full immediacy of Buddha-insight as a free and efficacious communication of that insight, a communication enacted by the Lotus Sûtra itself.
What is the content of the communication? Not a set of propositions but the enlightened vision itself that has made the Buddhas such masters of communication. The purpose of their communication is to raise all sentient beings up to Buddhahood. One might demythologize this by saying that the variety of personal Buddhas named in the text are symbols of an impersonal process of universal enlightenment that is going on all the time. Then faith in these Buddhas could be demythologized as openness to the enlightenment that is afoot, liberation of the mind from hesitation, indecision and any other obstacles to being enlightened. Skillful means could be a term to cover the entire revelatory activity of the Buddhas, all the manners in which enlightened vision impinges itself on our awareness, if we but attend to them.
The noun adhimukti occurs 12 times in the chapter. Bodhisattvas are firm in resolve (verse 7, adhimuktîya ye sthitâh). A synonym, found elsewhere, is adhimoksa – which reminds us of a connection with moksa, release, liberation. Kern also translates adhimukti as ‘inclination’; hîna-adhimuktâ (v. 120) is ‘low inclinations’ (Kern, p. 56); dharmam bhâsâmi sattvânâm adhijuktim vijânija (ch. 5, v. 1, p. 117) is translated as ‘I declare the law to all beings after discriminating their dispositions’ (Kern, p. 122). Adhimukti is a disposition of receptivity to the liberating teaching of the Buddhas, and it puts one on the way to final release.
yam Sâriputro sugatah prabhâsate
adhimukti-sampanna bhavâhi tatra (v. 19, p. 31) ;
‘Thou, Sâriputra, be full of trust in what the Sugata declares’ (Kern, p. 34). One might again translate adhimukti here as openness or receptivity. The text has stressed that heroes, sages and boshisattvas have failed to plumb the Buddha-wisdom:
bala vimoksa ye tesâm vaisâradyâs ca yadrsâh
yadrsâ buddha-dharmas ca na sakyam jnâtu kena-cit (v. 2, p. 29);
‘None can know their powers and states of emancipation, their absence of hesitation and Buddha properties, such as they are’ (Kern, p.32). A vocabulary of knowing, explaining, investigating prevails in these lines. When v. 19 introduces adhimukti, should we think that a soteriology of faith, based on hearing a revelation, is replacing one of meditative investigation? bhagavato bhâsitam sraddhâsyanti pratîyisyanty udgrahîsyanti (p. 35, ll. 11-12); ‘They will believe, value and accept what the Lord declares’ (Kern, p. 38).
Verbs for faith or trust (prasâda, sraddha) also occur 12 times in Chapter 2. The etymology of prasâda links to sâd, sitting. Like adhimukti, these words seem to hark back to meditational attitudes, in contrast to Western words for faith and trust (fides, fiducia) which either connect with the noetic realm or with ideas of personal loyalty (God himself ‘keeps faith’ with those who trust in him).
Something similar is true of ‘the doubt and uncertainty’ (Kern, p. 35) that are opposed to faith, vicikitsâ (p. 32, ll. 18-19). The Lotus Sûtra contains many calls to banish doubt. vyapanehi kânksâm tatha samsayam ca (v. 70; p. 45); ‘Remove all doubt and uncertainty’ (Kern, p. 48). Doubt is conceived less in terms of cognitive skepticism than as a failure of resolve, a spiritual faint-heartedness. The asraddhah (v. 38; p. 40), ‘unbelief’ (Kern, p. 44), of the 5000 monks etc. who withdraw from the assembly is traced to spiritual deficiency; they are ‘defective in training’ (v. 39); ‘They have no sufficient merit to hear this law’; tat tesâm kusalam nâsti srnuyur dharma ye imam (v. 40).
Faith, then, is an openness to enlightenment. But it is perhaps already enlightenment or awakening itself, or of the same stuff as it. To embrace the teachings joyfully is itself the mode in which the teachings act and become real, so that there is a non-duality between faith and what it grasps. Compare The Awakening of Faith in Mahâyâna. Spirituality is of the essence of grasping skillful means. The words of a Scripture can be heard and appreciated in depth only if we bring to them qualities of spirit developed in religious practice. The entire sûtra is a dramatic unfolding of many modes of communication of Buddha-wisdom, challenging the imagination of the hearers to embrace all these means in their vast plurality and in their mind-boggling exaltedness. The full embrace of this arsenal of skillful means would itself be enlightenment. Such a conception can be a medicine for the fetishistic focus on 'beliefs' in Western attitudes to religion. Faith is a joyful practice that brings spiritual growth, not a cognitive struggle that is constantly fretting over the unlikelihood of the tenets it wishes to hold.
TOWARD A SATURATED USE OF THE NOTION OF SKILLFUL MEANS
The notion of skillful means tends to undergo an inflation, especially as the tradition develops away from the early Mahâyâna original exposition of the idea, so that, depending on context, many forms of language and many views can be called upâya, if skillfully and wholesomely deployed. This becomes an universally applicable strategy for dealing with contradictions or implausibilities. Buddhists ‘are able to show patience in accepting heterodox and even contradictory tendencies in their surroundings, and on the other hand they are both persistent and sophisticated with regard to the eventual recoupment of Buddhist meaning’ (Pye, p. 160). Since no religious utterance is perfectly, exhaustively, literally true, the limping or malformed utterances of the erring or immature can be tolerated as differing in degree of validity, not in kind, from the considered formulations of seasoned orthodoxy (which for their part may lack basic vitality in practice). Even shoddy and unwholesome teachings can be justified as possibly being enlightening for someone. The notion of skillful means contains a critical edge, but in practice criteria for discerning between skillful and unskillful may be hard to establish.
Perhaps we could say that instead of judging life by the criteria of religious categories we should judge the latter by the criterion of life. A skillful means is known to be skillful by its healing, life-enhancing effects. Religious ideas or practices that have the opposite effects are thereby revealed as unskillful. Religion promises not just life, but the fullness of life, and a religious vision is one that enables one to see life in its full splendor.
To such a vision, the universe itself becomes a skillful means as all natural phenomena preach the dharma. The Buddha putting forth these skillful means is no longer a human preacher but the dharma-body, whose divine voice is heard in all things, which are all originally enlightened. The rhythm of the seasons, scattered leaves and blooming flowers, is itself the Dharma. Jien, versed in Tendai doctrine, makes Japanese place-names skillful means for propagating the Dharma and inculturating it:
‘That the bay of Naniwa in the province of Tsu is real too, we know from the way of the gate that assists.’
Japanese naniwa also means ‘anything’; such double entendres give these poems a density of reference comparable to those of Mallarmé or Valéry. ‘The locution naniwa no koto was well-known in the Heian period in the sense of “anything at all, everything whatever,”… Thus the ensemble Tsu no kuni no Naniwa no koto mo is nothing other than the poetic elaboration of the Buddhist technical term shohô, itself a rendering of the Sanskrit sarva-dharma… To these “things” the poet applies the term makoto, an almost banal word, that can be analyzed as ma-koto, “veritable thing.”… The expression tayori no kado is the Japanese transposition of the title of the Skillful Means chapter: Hôben bon’ (Robert, pp. 18-19). The enlightened gaze, penetrating the usual landscape of Japanese poetry, where all is impermanent, to discover ‘beyond impermanence, the real aspect of the existent’ (p. 17). All of nature is originally enlightened, and constantly teaches the Dharma. Japanese poetic technique, with its layers of meaning, intertextual references, and puns is set at the service of manifesting this. Everything becomes skillful means, and the skill of the poet flourishes on this realization. Even the moods of love-poetry or nature-poetry are enlisted in this pedagogy; emotions themselves are skillful means, conveying the Buddha’s Dharma without one’s being explicitly aware of it.
THE TWOFOLD TRUTH AS SKILLFUL MEANS
Madhyamaka thought associates the teaching of ultimate truth with the dexterous deployment of conventional means: ‘Without relying on everyday usage (vyavahâra), one cannot indicate the ultimate (paramârtha). Without penetrating the ultimate meaning, one cannot attain nirvâna’ (Nâgârjuna, Mûlamadhyamakakârikâ 24, 10). The realities of our world have a merely conventional existence, and the ultimate truth about them is their emptiness, their lack of substantial existence; but this truth is realized only in the perpetual dismantling of the illusions of substantiality to which the conventional world ceaselessly gives rise.
The doctrine of the twofold truth may be useful for exegeting the implications of upâya, but its historical origins are independent: the Mahâyâna sûtras revel in the notion of upâya but never refer to the twofold truth; conversely, Nâgârjuna is the foremost advocate of the distinction between ultimate and conventional truth, yet he never refers to upâya (Pye, p. 2). Later the two traditions are melded, as in an anonymous 8th century Chinese Pure Land text, Ten Doubts Concerning the Pure Land:
The Vimalakirti-sutra states, ‘Even though the Buddha knows that the Buddha Land and sentient beings are empty, he perpetually establishes the Pure Land in order to convert the multitude.’ Also, the Ta-chih tu-lun says, ‘A man who in constructing a mansion is successful when he builds it on a vacant ground, but fails when he tries to build it in space.’ In the same way, the Buddhas always rely on the two truths to explain ultimate reality without destroying the provisional name. (quoted, Tanaka, 2008)
Like skillful means, the twofold truth is prone to inflation. Every enunciation whatever, even if it refers to emptiness or other ultimates is merely conventional. As with skillful means, the twofold truth is reflexive; whatever I say about ultimate and conventional is itself conventional.
Buddhas use skillful means out of compassion to bring sentient beings to liberation. In Madhyamaka the skillful use of conventional truth corresponds to this. If all propositions are worldly convention, never ultimate, there is nonetheless a duty to cultivate the garden of conventional truth, not in a resigned skepticism, like the billiard-playing Hume, but in the conviction that this is a way of remaining in touch with the ultimate. Madhyamaka recognizes two levels of conventional truth. One concerns our daily dependence on robust notions of the identity of self and of things, in order to conduct the practical affairs of life. The other belongs to the speculative register, to a discourse that undoes the daily substantialist mentality and teaches the reciprocal conditioning of things and their lack of self-identity. This teaching of emptiness is itself a convention, but as a refutation of cruder convention it is step toward awareness of the truth of ultimate meaning. Work on the conventional is guided by the twofold concern to assure its practical and rational functioning and to pluck up the weeds that spring up when the conventional begins to forget its modest status and to give itself airs of ultimacy. More generally, the entire Madhyamaka dialectic or deconstruction is a skillful means, ‘a corrective or cure for deep-rooted obsessions with any possible picture of the world’ (Huntington, p. 129). Conventional truth is a skillful means, but the twofold truth itself, as a mode of navigation between convention and ultimacy, is a skillful means. The word upâya may not figure prominently in Madhyamaka vocabulary, but a concern with salvific efficiency presides over all its prescriptions for the use of the tetralemma and of such concepts as emptiness.
CHRISTIAN RECEPTION OF THE IDEA OF SKILLFUL MEANS
The notion of skillful means can have a fascination for Catholics, precisely because of the focus on objectively true, certain dogma in Catholic tradition. My bishop, Michael Murphy, found the notion attractive – at least in its application to extravagant popular devotions and superstitions. More widely, skillful means is a concept that addresses a basic disquiet people have about every religious heritage – the sense that religions are a kind of fantasy, with a touch of madness (as Buber remarks), not to be taken as solidly true – that even when we adhere to them and find them powerful, gracious, sustaining, there is a problem about managing the host of representations and theses they bring with them.
This use of the idea of skillful means to salve crises of faith or to allay the burden of hard doctrines may tend to become the opposite of what the Buddhist concept intends, namely to build up faith and to give insight into the perfection of Buddhist doctrines. If extravagant devotions are indeed skillful means, then one should embrace them with enthusiasm, using them to build up one’s imagination and to grasp the numinous at work in them. The entire fabric of Catholic faith could be embraced as a mighty organ of enlightenment. Indeed, such total embrace of mythical images and powers is a form a demythologization, for it is not the specific content of the belief that counts but its success in effecting religious conversion and spiritual awakening. (Just as, to give a somewhat troubling analogy, the total embrace of mythic forces in Wagner becomes a modern, demythologizing, deconstructive rapport with these forces.)
Theologians look for a free and creative relationship to the archaic traditions of religion, which would be neither a positivistic rationalistic reduction nor a blank check for uncritical credulity. But is such a prudent, judicious approach to religious tradition suited to the material, and is it likely to have any effect whatever on the actual practice of religious life? Theology should be secreted from a gut-level involvement with the religious practices, a generous adhimukti embrace of them, no questions asked. If the sickly cast of reflection and questioning pre-empts this fundamental vital commitment and prevents it from being lived out fully and unselfconsciously, then our relation to tradition is not free and creative, but detached and sapping.
The notion of skillful means allows one to cherish the richness of the religious fabric while not investing too heavily in dogmatic fixations. Or rather it makes ones embrace of doctrine wholesome, in that one looks to how doctrine functions as an organ of enlightenment or an occasion of awakening, putting aside the fixational or oppositional attitudes that come from objectifying doctrine in the mindset of an ideological advocate or a detached theological observer. Truths of religion plant themselves deep in the heart. We commonly fear that when forced into propositional form, as in the doctrines of the incarnation or the redemption, some of their convincing power is diluted and a shriller assertion takes its place. We allay this fear by thinking that even the most central doctrines of the Creed can only be a skillful means for indicating the ineffable. Even if a believer is utterly convinced that Christ is the one Savior and divine the meaning of these expressions is elusive; they are monuments of religious thought that mark a place of depth, but they need to be used skillfully if they are to continue to mark that place. This mobile and delicate way of thinking has already infiltrated common religious consciousness, where a constant assessment of the words and gestures we use is going on.
There is a danger in such skepsis, the danger that it whittles down the power of doctrine, causing a loss of faith. The step back from fixational attitudes should not lead to a pulverization of doctrine but to a larger, richer milieu, in which doctrines are allowed to deploy themselves as skillful means expressing this larger vision and life. Thus religious awareness can become something more dialogal and exploratory and open-ended, without losing its core of conviction. Pluralistic appreciation of all traditions and a certain relaxed relation to one’s own tradition’s doctrinal claims and convictions may be the condition of authentic faith today and tomorrow. But this should be in the key of a fuller affirmation all round; mutual deconstruction as mutual liberation; it should not be a mutual sapping that exposes religions as tall tales that are mere props for spiritual or psychological growth. When a religion turns on itself critically, it need not rip up the fabric of skillful means and withdraw its trustful subscription to them. Rather it can deepen the sense that they are precisely that, skillful means – means that have had stupendous success in bringing the divine reality close – and that can continue to have such success when they are adjusted to contemporary consciousness.
One can defend the objective referentiality of theological concepts on condition of recognizing that their objective content cannot be abstracted from their pragmatic function in a healing and liberating discourse. If they are skillful means, they are used by a teacher to communicate with an audience, and both the soteriological intention of the teacher and the believing trust and understanding of the hearers are intrinsic to their texture. Religious tenets often come to stand on their own, like axioms in a science. What the notion of skillful means brings home is that religious revelation is a communicative, educational process, a movement of dynamic awakening and enlightening such that none of its deliveries have any sense except as part of this salvific action.
But can dogma itself be a skillful means? Can the sacraments – objectively bearing the presence of grace, in Catholic thinking – be treated as skillful means? Can a Catholic say that the entire discourse of dogma, so carefully honed over centuries, is merely a skillful means, belonging to the register of conventional truth, and that the really important truth – the really revealed truth and the really saving truth – is ineffable? Apophatic theology strains in that direction. But the word ‘merely’ is misleading here. Skillful means should denote rather the authentic texture and functioning of dogmas and sacraments.
THE CONVENTIONALITY OF RELIGION
In associating skillful means with conventional truth in the Madhyamaka sense, I may court a rather downbeat theological sense of skillful means as ‘merely’ conventions. But perhaps conventionality too can be regarded in a more positive light, as the very language of ultimacy, the only language it has.
Wherever we probe the texture of religious discourse and imagery, we find a human, historical achievement of thought and imagination, and the more we probe, the more the contingent, fragile, makeshift character of this achievement comes to light. When one seeks to fully recognize the constructed, historical, limited character of any given religious vision and even of any religious tradition in its entire trajectory, while at the same time wanting to insist that these constructions make possible a valid relationship to the divine, one is inevitably thrown back on some form of the distinction between samvrti-satya and paramârtha-satya.
That there is an iron logic at the heart of theology, and that like mathematics it advances with the steady tread of a secure science, is more than doubtful; but even if it were so there is a school of thought, in the line of Henri Poincaré, that is ready to see mathematics itself as a smoothly functioning convention. Even let the power of reason within theology be brought to its maximum perfection, as in Aquinas, a sophisticated reading will still bring to light the admixture of contingency and conventionality that undermines the appearance of timeless, self-sufficient rationality. Such a reading will show that even Aquinas is swimming in a sea of conventional representations, which he manages adroitly by setting his logic to work on them and by pressing them through metaphysical grids.
These exercises of regulating conventional truth are ‘valid’ but not ‘ultimate.’ To claim ultimacy for valid conventions is to introduce a pervasive distortion of religious truth. It is the task of theology to wean our minds away from such false ultimacy and to teach us ever anew the conventional status of our understanding. There is an ‘ultimate’ aspect to faith, no doubt, but that ultimacy cannot be entirely invested in any proposition or image, however high up it be in the hierarchy of conventional truths.
‘God is my creator and redeemer,’ for instance, looks like a proposition that demands the total investment of faith that only the ultimate can demand. But as we realize the historical texture of the notions of ‘God,’ ‘creator,’ and ‘redeemer’ we come to see that they serve as indicators of a relationship that they cannot really encompass, they are skillful means for awakening us to that relationship, to be set aside when they get in the way of such awakening. Dogmas refer us back to what is given in a lived encounter with the divine and they can add nothing to that encounter, on which their referential value is parasitic. The concrete sense of a term such as ‘God’ depends on practices of trust and prayer by which our existence is oriented to and from God; a God abstracted from that context is already a false God. One imagines and adores a God surpassing every context, yet one always does so starting from a concrete context and using notions that context provides. Should every connection with the real context disappear, adoration would become a vain fantasy.
As to truths lower on the hierarchy, such as those that divide Christian denominations, here the historical genesis is likely to be far more entangled and its results far more obscure, so that to invest in them anything like an ultimate commitment would be extremely unwise. The sectarian mind, imprisoned in small differences, fails to use the higher, unitive convictions to open itself to the sense of ultimacy. Even the differences between Judaism, Islam and Christianity, or between Buddhism and Christianity, have only ‘conventional’ status. Ecumenism will deal with them in such a way as to use them as springboards to ultimacy. This ultimacy does not emerge in a mystical plunge beyond all religious discourse, but in the wise handling of the conventional discourses in their perpetual dialectical interplay. One’s own confessional position within this dialectic is not to be imposed violently on the entire interreligious space. It suffices that one knows one’s creed to be a channel of contact with ultimacy, while recognizing also that in its historical and cultural fabric it can be corrected and perfected.
The Mahâyâna outlook is monistic, in the sense that salvation is not a change of our state, brought about by an intervention from beyond, but consists rather in realizing that we are always already nirvanized, that the painful realm of samsâra if seen properly, without delusive conceptualization and imprisoning attachments, is none other than the peaceful, liberated realm of nirvâna. When we dismantle delusive conceptualizations and discriminations and undo our passionate attachment to them, we find ourselves where we always already are, in the empty, dependently arisen world of experience; such is the Mahâyâna vision of salvation.
If we embrace this Mahâyâna sensibility, are we betraying Catholic realism, which insists on the historical origins and fleshly reality of Christ and his mysteries? Christianity presents redemption and resurrection as singular events precisely located in relation to a concrete history. It would be hard to maintain that Christ`s death and resurrection, like Sâkyamuni’s entry into nirvâna, according to the Lotus Sûtra, are not so much new events that transform the world in its relation to God, as revelations of how reality ultimately is – and how it has always been. Physical miracles, notably the virgin birth and the empty tomb, are signs of this irreducible singularity.
To be sure, many Christian thinkers have taken ‘offence’ at this singularity or positivity of divine acts in history. An interventionist God, who tampers with the fabric of history, or a God-of-the-gaps, who supplements the natural processes of evolution, has bad press among philosophically-minded Christians. A ‘naturalized’ theology interprets salvation history as a matter of development of human consciousness of the divine. Incarnation and resurrection are put in perspective as an evolutionary threshold in humanity’s development toward a higher life. (Some go further and take salvation history as a fabric of fictions and metaphors to be taken as stimulants to or indicators of transformed vision.)
Grace and revelation are universal processes, as old as humanity itself, and if Christ enjoys centrality or primacy in relation to these processes it must be for some more modest reason than formerly thought – not so much ‘God becoming man’ as humanity relating in a new way to God, in a prophetic opening up to the divine future (the Kingdom of God). Such revisionist theology treats the biblical story as skillful means for an archaic culture that lacked our evolutionist and historical perspective. Of course even the early Church can be seen as treating the Hebrew Scriptures as a kind of skillful means; the Christological reading of these Scriptures, which claimed to penetrate their spiritual sense, hidden from their Jewish readers, shows a similar structure to the contemporaneous revisionist reading of early Buddhism carried out by the Mahayanists.
Today’s questioning consciousness tends to dissociate the colored fabric of religion from the bedrock of scientific or existential truth. It detects not only in Christianity but in any religion to which it adverts the play of usually obsolete conventions, and it disencumbers every religious claim and representation of its absolute character. This relativizing skepticism is the very element in which religious thinking is marinated today. Is it possible to bring a new religious language to birth from this experience – one that begins by fully accepting the fragility of religious imaginings and reflections and that gives an oblique and indirect sense to all claims of divine revelation? Religions are conventions, skillful means, to be used freely and creatively in the deepening of spiritual consciousness.
Pye evokes ‘the inescapable probability that all specific religions will eventually disappear, without trace. It is in tune with the way of the world to understand any expressions of religions in terms of provisional articulation and eventual dismantling’ (Pye, p. 162). ‘It is notable that recent decades have seen among Christian theologians one of the most sustained attempts in history to dismantle a religious tradition from within’ (p. 163), and, Pye suggests, the tensions this created could be managed by drawing on the idea of skillful means. ‘In the end we’ll all be dead’ is a somewhat disheartening hermeneutical horizon. In any case the Abrahamic inspiration and the Buddha tradition continue to be major resources of human religious thought, and in their transformations they may continue as long as humanity lasts. What Pye sees as a self-dismantling of Christianity could be seen simply as adjustment to a new phase of its evolution. In a sense such dismantling has always been part of biblical religion, and of course Buddhism is the most deconstructive religion of all. Much that seemed merely destructive before Derrida came along now appears as deconstructive, as recognition of complexity rather than as mere negation.
Religion is like life, multiform, complex, mysterious no matter how much it yields to scrutiny, and its illuminative force will attend human life always. Indeed it is itself part of life, the awakening of the spirit, and all constituted revelations, religions and religious teachers make sense only as consubstantial with that awakening, only, that is, as skillful means. We approach these traditions armed with all the weaponry of historical and philosophical suspicion, but a hermeneutics of trust, of adhimukti, must prevail, so that we can connect with Buddha, Jesus, even Muhammad as powerful breakthroughs of the divine revelational event at the heart of things. Theologians may quarrel about the respective roles of these figures and traditions, but the basic stance to be adopted is to humbly believe, value and accept all of them. Where historical scholarship seems to banish the divine from the human landscape, the imagination of faith appropriates these traditions in a more relaxed way, as blessed upâya, successfully interconnecting with all our experience, so that the divine draws near again.
U. Wogihara and C. Tsuchida, ed., 1935. Saddharmapundarika-sûtram. Tokyo: Seigo-Kenkyûkai.
H. Kern, trans., 1909. The Saddharma-Pundarika. Oxford: Clarendon.
C. W. Huntington, Jr., 1989. The Emptiness of Emptiness. Honolulu: University of Hawaii Press.
Michael Pye, 1978. Skilful Means. London: Duckworth.
Jean-Noël Robert, 2008. La Centurie du Lotus: Poèmes de Jien (1155-1225) sur le Sûtra du Lotus. Paris: Collège de France.
Kenneth K. Tanaka, forthcoming. ‘Amida and Pure Land within Contemporary Worldview: From Shinran’s Literal Symbolism to Figurative Symbolism,’ in a Festschrift for Roger Corless.
-----, 2008. ‘Skillful Means in Pure Land Buddhism.’ Tokyo Buddhist Discussion Group, December 2008.